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Will new reforms help the current crisis?

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The package of housing reforms announced last night will probably prove to be narrowly effective, but the Government’s fundamental problems on housing remain. Will the new reforms help, or do they risk a backlash, division in Government, and ushering in a range of new political risks for the coalition?

Just what have they decided, and what does it all mean?

So, bulk buying is off the cards now, right?
Yes and no. A certain type of bulk buying, in a certain area, is (or will be shortly). But in other areas, and among certain housing types, it’s still allowed.

First of all, what’s banned now?
Almost immediately, two changes will come into effect. Tonight, the Dáil will vote to impose a higher stamp duty of ten per cent on purchases of ten or more houses or duplexes. Apartments are exempt (more on that later).

These stamp reforms are the only taxation element brought to the table by Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe.

Today, Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien will send a circular to local authorities mandating that houses and duplexes in new developments must be made available for sale by individual, non-commercial buyers. Again, there are exemptions for social and affordable reasons, and the condition will lapse for any units not sold in two years. It’s understood Ministers were told yesterday that O’Brien is considering, on the advice of the Attorney General, whether additional legislation is needed to “bolster” this guidance – that could be one to watch.

That’s it for now?
There’s a second stage to the planning reforms. The Government will introduce amendments to the Affordable Housing Bill, currently working its way through the Oireachtas, over the summer which will mandate local authorities to make a certain percentage of new builds available for purchase by “owner-occupiers”. Originally intended this would apply to first time buyers only, and it’s not clear why this change was introduced at the last minute.

It was originally intended that this would only apply to houses and duplexes, but after Green Ministers raised concerns at cabinet about the exclusion of apartments from the measures, O’Brien has committed to examining whether this could be extended to include apartments.

Will the Government housing plan help you?

So, will it work?
It depends what you mean by “work”. From the Government’s point of view, these policies were designed to tackle a very specific problem – the purchase of houses which had been designed for and marketed to owner-occupiers by investment funds. Gazumping, effectively, of punters by funds. And they’ll probably curtail that, but not for a while, as the rules only apply to new planning permissions.

However, that’s only half the story.

What’s the other half?
The current debate over funds isn’t really about one transaction, or one particular type of deal. It has reignited and animated the entire political debate about housing, which had lain dormant (to a degree) during the height of the Covid crisis.

The political risk associated with failures in housing policy has crystallised rapidly. The themes of insiders and outsiders, winners and losers, which dominated the last election cycle have returned, and been given a new lease of life, in the form of “funds versus people”. What’s clear from a close reading of the Government decision is that funds are going nowhere. While Government actions might target some aspects of how they work, they’re centrally involved in housing policy – especially for apartments and the private rental sector, a rapidly growing market segment.

Why is that?
Apartments are particularly attractive to investment funds, and Ministers were told yesterday that their construction is especially reliant on financing from these funds. “In order for apartment complexes to be built it is necessary in virtually all cases for an institutional investor to commit through a binding contract to purchase all or part of an apartment complex on completion,” a memo for cabinet reads. Ministers were told institutional investors will only fund this development if they can easily sell apartments on, which could be hurt by an extra stamp charge.

Builders say apartment construction is basically non-viable without funds involved.

Ministers were also told that there is a ministerial policy objective to “ensure that own-door housing in lower density housing estates are not bulk-purchased for rental purposes by commercial institutional investors in a manner that causes the displacement of individual household purchasers”.

So these two dynamics – wanting to preserve funding for apartment blocks, and encourage home ownership in less dense areas, were core to Government thinking.

What are the politics of all this?
The reforms tackle a specific problem, but critics argue they do nothing to address more endemic problems around affordability, and risk damaging urban sustainability by incentivising renting in city centres and home ownership on the edge of town. They also preserve the role for investment funds in the wider market.

As we’ve seen, that’s basically a government goal, but it means there will be a steady supply of examples where funds purchase homes, which will ram home for some people the idea that the Government is prioritising financial interests over homes for people. There is a huge market for rental investment, as shown by a story in our property pages today about a bidding war for a €1 billion, 2,000 unit private rented sector “platform”.

These reforms, while they may be narrowly successful when viewed on their own terms, leave the Government open to the charge of a missed opportunity. The visible relief of big property companies, expressed in rising stock market prices this morning, won’t help this impression.

The Government will call foul, and argue (with some justification) that things aren’t that simple, pointing to their affordable housing and land development agency bills as evidence they want to solve more systemic problems. But the political risk is in the here and now.

Within the coalition, the apartment exemptions are causing particular problems among the Greens. Sources in the party say that there was an agreed position among some members of the parliamentary party, that densities or housing types – such as apartments – could not be excluded from the reforms. It seems these concerns were raised by ministers, but for whatever reason, the Greens lost the argument around the cabinet table. However, as comments from MEP Ciarán Cuffe this morning show, there is a sizable rump of dissatisfaction within the party over how things have played out. Mr Cuffe said he is “disappointed” with the reforms, and that he understands “several of my parliamentary colleagues in the Oireachtas are of a similar view”.

It’s not confined to the Greens, either. James Geoghegan, the Fine Gael candidate in Dublin Bay South, put down a motion supported by party colleagues last week arguing the concentration of build-to-let is “distorting competition, inflating rents and locking a generation away from home ownership”. He said on Wednesday he supports the Government policy, but that he would like to see a “rebalancing” to include apartments to some extent in rules curtailing bulk purchase. He said the market needs to be “rebalanced… either through planning or legislation, because the only way a citizen can be protected against that amount of finance is to legislate for it”.

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Foley to bring school reopening plan to Cabinet on Tuesday

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Minister for Education Norma Foley says she has every confidence schools will reopen fully from late August and early September.

Ms Foley said there was ongoing engagement between her department and public health officials on the matter but all schools were set to reopen.

Strong mitigation measures would be in place in schools to ensure that they would continue to be controlled environments, she told RTÉ radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show on Monday.

Covid-19 infection rates among children were at their highest when children were not at school and public health experts had pointed out “on a consistent basis to schools being a very significantly controlled environment”.

The safe operation of the Leaving Certificate exams and enhanced summer camps indicated that the safe operation of education could be maintained, she said.

A plan would be put in place to allow schools to “draw down” CO2 monitors and the Minister said she was confident there would be enough monitors for all schools by the start of the new school year.

In relation to Covid-19 vaccines for children, Ms Foley said the “expertise” lay with the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) from which her department would take guidance.

“I have received confirmation that the 16 to 18-year-old cohort should be in a position for online registration in the coming days, and I have been advised that the 15-year-olds cohort are still being considered by NIAC and there has been no definitive timeline given,” she added.

Ms Foley will bring a plan to Cabinet on Tuesday outlining enhanced public information campaigns, the outcome of antigen testing pilots, and the purchase of C02 monitors to assist in ventilating classrooms.

Capacity limits on school transport services will also remain in place.

Government sources were adamant on Sunday that second-level education would resume in the autumn, despite concerns among public-health officials that the wave could grow following the reopening of indoor dining today, before peaking in September.

“Schools will reopen,” a senior Coalition source said.

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Over 40 complaints made about ‘unsuitable’ books on English curriculum

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Some books being studied by Junior Cert and Leaving Cert English students feature “disturbing and sick content” and material that is “clearly unsuitable for minors”, complainants have told the Department of Education.

The department has received more than 40 complaints on the issue in recent months, with one email to Minister Norma Foley describing The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood as “nothing but sadistic, upsetting and of no moral learning or value to students”.

The acclaimed dystopian novel is based in a patriarchal totalitarian state where women, or handmaids, are forced to produce children for commanders.

One “concerned parent” said they were “perturbed” that their teenager was studying the novel Room by Irish author Emma Donoghue.

‘Questionable’

They said many of the topics in the book were “questionable” and that greater consideration should have been given before the book was “forced upon sensitive people in this day and age”. The Booker-shortlisted story is told from the perspective of a young boy held captive in a small room with his mother.

The emails, released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act, were from parents, one of whom said they were “appealing to and begging” the department to change the curriculum.

One parent expressed “shock and concern” about the prescribed reading lists, citing a perceived “lack of vigilance regarding the age appropriateness” of some books. “The material is offensive, abhorrent and clearly unsuitable for minors,” they said.

The curriculum could “only be described as the sexualisation and desensitising of our children… there needs to be an investigation into this whole sordid affair”, another complaint said.

‘Enslaving’

One person said the book list was “enslaving” students to “abominable ungodly content”, while another sarcastically suggested there was “nothing to stop” Fifty Shades of Grey, the bestselling explicit erotic romance novel, being added.

Some emails were directed towards Ms Foley personally, and called for her to be fired and “held directly responsible”. The department’s response stated that the curriculum at all levels was considered to be for all learners “regardless of race, religion, socioeconomic background, gender or orientation”.

It said it was important that each book was viewed “in its entirety rather than being reduced to particular sections which may be especially controversial”, and that the texts had “strong literary pedigrees” and featured on curricula internationally.

There were also several emails sent to the department in defence of the curriculum, predominantly from students.

The text-list working groups for each subject, convened by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, are comprised of teachers, third-level lecturers, staff from relevant support agencies and experts in children’s and young adult literature. The curriculum did not change this year though the Minister said it would be reviewed in the coming months.


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EDEN CONFIDENTIAL: A new £10m home sweet home in the Cotswolds for Nick Candy and Holly Valance 

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You might have thought having a Chelsea pad worth more than £75 million would be enough for most property tycoons, but not for Nick Candy.

I can disclose that Candy and his pop star wife, Holly Valance, have splashed out well over £10 million on a Grade II‑listed mansion in Oxfordshire.

They will be a short drive from trendy private members’ club Soho Farmhouse, where Prince Harry courted Meghan.

That's sweet: Nick Candy and his pop star wife, Holly Valance, have splashed out well over £10 million on a Grade II‑listed mansion in Oxfordshire (pictured)

That’s sweet: Nick Candy and his pop star wife, Holly Valance, have splashed out well over £10 million on a Grade II‑listed mansion in Oxfordshire (pictured)

Holly Valance and Nick Candy attend Lisa Tchenguiz's 50th birthday party at the Troxy in 2015

Holly Valance and Nick Candy attend Lisa Tchenguiz’s 50th birthday party at the Troxy in 2015

The seven-bedroom property has a pool, stables, tennis and squash courts and its own chapel

The seven-bedroom property has a pool, stables, tennis and squash courts and its own chapel

While it is unknown how much the couple paid, records show it was bought for £8m in 2012

While it is unknown how much the couple paid, records show it was bought for £8m in 2012

The house is a short drive from trendy private members' club Soho Farmhouse

The house is a short drive from trendy private members’ club Soho Farmhouse

Candy and his pop star wife, Holly Valance, have splashed out well over £10 million on the property

Candy and his pop star wife, Holly Valance, have splashed out well over £10 million on the property

The seven-bedroom property has a pool, stables, tennis and squash courts

The seven-bedroom property has a pool, stables, tennis and squash courts

Candy, 48, declines to say how much they paid, but the house was bought by the previous owners for £8 million in 2012

Candy, 48, declines to say how much they paid, but the house was bought by the previous owners for £8 million in 2012

Prices have rocketed in the area, where locals include Kate Moss and JCB tycoon Lord Bamford and his wife Carole

Prices have rocketed in the area, where locals include Kate Moss and JCB tycoon Lord Bamford and his wife Carole

Candy, who has two daughters with his wife, adds: 'We're very immersed in our quiet country life at weekends'

Candy, who has two daughters with his wife, adds: ‘We’re very immersed in our quiet country life at weekends’

‘We have been looking for years to get something in the Cotswolds for the family, and finally, a year ago, we found a gorgeous family home in a wonderful village,’ Candy tells me.

The seven-bedroom property has a pool, stables, tennis and squash courts and its own chapel.

Candy, 48, declines to say how much they paid, but the house was bought by the previous owners for £8 million in 2012.

Since then, prices have rocketed in the area, where locals include Kate Moss and JCB tycoon Lord Bamford and his wife Carole, who started the Daylesford organic empire.

Candy, who has two daughters with his wife, adds: ‘We’re very immersed in our quiet country life at weekends and adore the friendly and welcoming village.’

Candy's luxury two-storey penthouse in Hyde Park has gone on sale for £175million

Candy’s luxury two-storey penthouse in Hyde Park has gone on sale for £175million

The stunning apartment is split over two levels, boasts five bedrooms, a 21m swimming pool, and measures around 18,000 sq ft - the equivalent of almost 18 average homes in England.

The stunning apartment is split over two levels, boasts five bedrooms, a 21m swimming pool, and measures around 18,000 sq ft – the equivalent of almost 18 average homes in England. 

Prolific author Alexander McCall Smith, creator of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency has been promised great things – but only after his death.

He says: ‘I was on tour in the United States and this woman came up to me with a book for signature, and she looked at me and said: ‘You know something, you’re going to be much more successful posthumously.’ ‘

The writer, 72, who has written 21 novels in the series, says. ‘She wasn’t being rude, but it was rather an odd thing to say to somebody.’

How guitar guru Beck gave Depp a silver lining 

Pictured: Johnny Depp is planning his comeback

Pictured: Johnny Depp is planning his comeback

With his acrimonious divorce from actress Amber Heard, and their bitter court room showdown in London last summer, Hollywood star Johnny Depp suffered the biggest setback of his glittering career.

Now, however, I hear he’s quietly planning his comeback — right here in Britain.

The 58-year-old star of Fantastic Beasts and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory has been taken under the wing of British rock legend Jeff Beck.

The Hi Ho Silver Lining guitarist, 77, who’s so talented he had each of his fingers insured for £700,000 in 2010, has secretly been hosting Depp at his Riverhall country estate in Wadhurst, East Sussex, where they’ve been writing and recording together in Beck’s studio. Depp is an accomplished guitarist himself.

‘They’ve been collaborating on material for Jeff’s next album,’ reveals a source close to Depp. ‘It’s been great for Johnny to get back to his first true love, which is music.

‘Jeff has been a great friend to Johnny during a very difficult time, and being away from Hollywood has been exactly what Johnny needed.

‘He wants to take a step back from everything and focus on a comeback through music.’

Eight-time Grammy Award winner Jeff, who has been called ‘one of the most influential lead guitarists in rock’ by Rolling Stone magazine, recorded a cover of John Lennon’s Isolation with Depp last year, intended to help people cope with life in lockdown.

Johnny Depp of Hollywood Vampires performs on stage at Celebrity Theatre in 2018 in Arizona

Johnny Depp of Hollywood Vampires performs on stage at Celebrity Theatre in 2018 in Arizona

In 2019 they played together at the Crossroads Music Festival in Dallas, Texas, for Eric Clapton’s charity, then did a short tour of the U.S.

Depp has previously featured on songs by Oasis, Iggy Pop, and Aerosmith, as well as on records by his ex-girlfriend, singer Vanessa Paradis, with whom he has two children. In 2015, he formed the super group, Hollywood Vampires, with Alice Cooper and Joe Perry.

‘Johnny hopes to return to films eventually,’ adds the source, ‘but it’s music first.’

Boogie-woogie pianist Jools Holland is learning to sing lullabies. The Later . . . with Jools Holland host has become a grandfather at the age of 63.

‘I am very pleased that I now have a wonderful grandson, Gabriel,’ he says. His musician daughter, Mabel Ray, 30, is the proud mum.

‘We seem to have identical hair,’ he adds of the baby. ‘He is a delightful little fellow. All thanks to the fantastic staff at Homerton University Hospital for delivering him to us.’

Queen’s Windsor gong show for late Duke’s loyal page

The Queen is making sure Prince Philip’s most steadfast former aides feel rewarded.

I hear that she invited the Duke of Edinburgh’s loyal page, William Henderson, to Windsor Castle this week to collect his gong.

His appointment as a Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order was announced on what would have been Philip’s 100th birthday.

Henderson was among those who took part in the funeral procession, walking behind the coffin.

Known for his sarcastic quips when required to report on the love lives of the Royal Family, waggish news anchor Simon McCoy seems to be secretly obsessed with the Windsors.

‘If I were invisible, I would go into Highgrove and stand by the phone to listen to any conversation Prince Charles might have with Harry,’ admits McCoy, who recently moved from the BBC to its new rival channel, GB News.

‘I feel desperately sorry for Charles — I really do. Family difficulties are bad enough without one of you bleating about it to the Press all the time.’

Creating a buzz with Angelina the Queen Bee 

There’s a buzz about Angelina Jolie, but it’s nothing to do with her film career.

The actress brought a touch of Hollywood glamour to the new French Apidology Observatory, in Sainte-Baume, where she presented its first graduates with their diplomas.

Angelina Jolie with children Pax, Zahara and Shiloh seen shopping at trendy KITH's in Paris, France

Angelina Jolie with children Pax, Zahara and Shiloh seen shopping at trendy KITH's in Paris, France

Angelina Jolie (pictured shopping Paris) brought a touch of Hollywood glamour to the new French Apidology Observatory where she presented its first graduates with their diplomas

Jolie, 46, who’s recently been seen out with her British ex-husband Jonny Lee Miller, was there because she’s involved in the Women for Bees project, which aims to encourage women to become beekeepers.

Clearly, there’s only one Queen Bee.

Paymaster General Penny Mordaunt, who starred on TV diving show Splash, will be demonstrating her water skills at the local pool rather than heading off to the Med this summer.

‘I’ll be staying in my constituency and spending time at my local lido,’ the MP for Portsmouth North tells me at the Westminster launch party for her book, Greater: Britain After The Storm, which she’s co-written with Chris Lewis. ‘I’ve earned that — I went to great lengths to save it.’

The forecast is hotting up with Carol’s exotic secret 

This could liven up those dull BBC meteorological reports: weather presenter Carol Kirkwood has revealed a secret skill.

‘I can belly-dance,’ whispers the former Strictly contestant.

‘It is actually quite hard, but I learned to do it when I was a student travelling in Turkey and Greece.’

The Scottish hotelier’s daughter, 59, adds: I can’t claim to be very good at it — but I do at least have the belly for it these days.’

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